An Introduction to Private vs. Personal Property

In having some discussions about my anti-capitalist leanings with those still very entrenched in the system, one fundamental misconception I’ve run into over and over is that personal and private property are the same thing, which allows the person I’m talking with to construct a strawman about how an anarchist/communist/far-far-left state wouldn’t allow anyone to have any kind of nice things, or that the concept of ownership would be abolished altogether. And that’s just plain silly. Of course we believe in everyone’s right to have personal effects and possessions, to have nice clothes, a house, gadgets and doodads, and even money.

The mixup comes with not making a distinction between private and personal property, and this only seems to happen when someone talks about being morally against the former. (Forget that this distinction is economics 101 that they probably learned in high school. I chalk it up to selective memory.)

The jist is more or less, I believe, this: personal property might be, say, the home you live in, and private property would be the second home that you don’t live in.

To get into the specifics, though, I’m going to need to turn to some people who are much smarter than I am.

From the Communist Manifesto itself:

We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labour, which property is alleged to be the groundwork of all personal freedom, activity and independence.

Hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property! Do you mean the property of petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form? There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily.

Or do you mean the modern bourgeois private property?

But does wage-labour create any property for the labourer? Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation. Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage labour. Let us examine both sides of this antagonism.

To be a capitalist, is to have not only a purely personal, but a social status in production. Capital is a collective product, and only by the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society, can it be set in motion.

Capital is therefore not only personal; it is a social power.

From ckalhatsu on

This topic is about a seemingly simple question that, when explored, actually transports us right through to the core of what an anti-capitalist, communist politics is all about.

Originally Posted by Deny

What is the objection to people owning too much stuff? Too large a house, too many cars, etc.?

This kind of materialistic question can potentially be troublesome for a Marxist approach to politics because, as Marxists, we do *not* base our political philosophical principles on issues of *personal* consumption. In short we’re *not* moralists — and, really, *no* politics should be judgmental at the individual level because that’s *outside* of the *domain* of politics. Political matters are, by their nature, about *mass* quantities, and about their *overall* administration / ownership.


Your questions here contain the answer — we have to inquire as to *how* a person acquires their income and material possessions. We can actually just *scale down* the concept of a *surplus*, to the *personal* level, and examine it in the same way as we examine a mass, *societal* surplus.

Is the person in question really *only* a wage-earner, or — more realistically — have they *financially leveraged* *past* earnings as capital so as to play in the markets and claim portions of *other laborers’* *surplus labor value* — ???…!!!

Additionally we can also look at the person’s relationship to the means of mass production in their role in the workplace. If they are better-compensated they are most likely taking on greater (implicit or explicit) managerial / *political* roles, either internally and/or externally. In other words they may be closer to the company’s “brain trust” that operates as an internal society of consensus, collectively rubber-stamping managerial decisions that come down from above. (Managerial decisions are entirely about providing a return on capital investments, so any revenue not consumed by overhead and operational costs is a *surplus* outside of *both* capital and labor, and yet is *only* distributed to the bearers of *capital* — shareholders.)

If a wages-only worker has *truly* been able to stay employed for decades while only representing their own labor (and possibly that of fellow workers) *without* selling out in the least, then I’d say that they *deserve* whatever riches they may have been able to accumulate with such honest labor and position…(!)


Originally Posted by Deny

Well I sympathize with that as much is anyone else, but what would be the theoretical justification for it? I mean, is there something else to it other than “that’s too much”? Where is the line drawn and why?

I’m going to take this up in more of a future, post-capitalist context, using it to ask how we *might* measure such a thing given the *full collectivization* of the means of mass production to the laborers themselves, far beyond the constraints of the elite population of wealth ownership and their political backers….

Given the end of wage labor and commodity production we might ask what would be worth *doing* with such widespread liberation and what would be worth *possessing*….

I think we’d have to focus on *use* values and “look”, moment-by-moment, to see if a person is actually *using* said possessions or if those items would be better off as *public*, *communal* property. For example, if a person was an avid art collector they may *currently* have the means with which to amass an impressive private collection which could potentially give them greater enjoyment and enlightened sensibilities than an average person who *didn’t* possess such works.

At the same time we *can’t* just shit all over people with means who may have done *worthwhile* things with their privilege — much of the world’s current state of civilization, such as it is, is due to those more noble-minded owners of wealth who decide to engage themselves in matters of *cultural* concern (such as they are). So, by default of ownership they have become the de facto *caretakers* of cultural artifacts that are *not* in the public sector / public domain.

But we *can* ask *how much* a single individual can really *enjoy* or *gain* from their large sum of wealth, in whatever form. At *some* point the wealth has *far outstripped* its use-value to that individual and even the *owner* will admit that they have had to spread the ownership and risk around, as with “offering shares” and “going public”.

As revolutionaries we’re merely offering that such ownership, responsibility, and risk should be spread *even further* outward, to include *all* of society, in the *most* collective way possible, thereby creating a purely *political* society that has surpassed the need for capital altogether through its exercise of mass economic democracy, or a collectivized politically planned economy.


Private property is one of the three things all anarchists oppose, along side hierarchical authority and the state. Today, the dominant system of private property is capitalist in nature and, as such, anarchists tend to concentrate on this system and its property rights regime. We will be reflecting this here but do not, because of this, assume that anarchists consider other forms of private property regime (such as, say, feudalism) as acceptable. This is not the case — anarchists are against every form of property rights regime which results in the many working for the few.

Anarchist opposition to private property rests on two, related, arguments. These were summed up by Proudhon’s maxims (from What is Property? that“property is theft” and “property is despotism.” In his words, “Property . . . violates equality by the rights of exclusion and increase, and freedom by despotism . . . [and has] perfect identity with robbery.” [Proudhon, What is Property, p. 251] Anarchists, therefore, oppose private property (i.e. capitalism) because it is a source of coercive, hierarchical authority as well as exploitation and, consequently, elite privilege and inequality. It is based on and produces inequality, in terms of both wealth and power.


[P]rivate property is the state writ small, with the property owner acting as the “sovereign lord” over their property, and so the absolute king of those who use it. As in any monarchy, the worker is the subject of the capitalist, having to follow their orders, laws and decisions while on their property. This, obviously, is the total denial of liberty (and dignity, we may note, as it is degrading to have to follow orders). And so private property (capitalism) necessarily excludes participation, influence, and control by those who use, but do not own, the means of life.

It is, of course, true that private property provides a sphere of decision-making free from outside interference — but only for the property’s owners. But for those who are not property owners the situation if radically different. In a system of exclusively private property does not guarantee them any such sphere of freedom. They have only the freedom to sell their liberty to those who do own private property. If I am evicted from one piece of private property, where can I go? Nowhere, unless another owner agrees to allow me access to their piece of private property. This means that everywhere I can stand is a place where I have no right to stand without permission and, as a consequence, I exist only by the sufferance of the property owning elite.


It will, of course, be objected that no one forces a worker to work for a given boss. However, as we discuss in section B.4.3, this assertion (while true) misses the point. While workers are not forced to work for a specific boss, they inevitably have to work for a boss. This is because there is literally no other way to survive — all other economic options have been taken from them by state coercion. The net effect is that the working class has little choice but to hire themselves out to those with property and, as a consequence, the labourer “has sold and surrendered his liberty” to the boss. [Proudhon, Op. Cit., p. 130]


Anarchists define “private property” (or just “property,” for short) as state-protected monopolies of certain objects or privileges which are used to control and exploit others. “Possession,” on the other hand, is ownership of things that are not used to exploit others (e.g. a car, a refrigerator, a toothbrush, etc.). Thus many things can be considered as either property or possessions depending on how they are used.

To summarise, anarchists are in favour of the kind of property which “cannot be used to exploit another — those kinds of personal possessions which we accumulate from childhood and which become part of our lives.” We are opposed to the kind of property “which can be used only to exploit people — land and buildings, instruments of production and distribution, raw materials and manufactured articles, money and capital.” [Nicholas Walter, About Anarchism, p. 40


While it may initially be confusing to make this distinction, it is very useful to understand the nature of capitalist society. Capitalists tend to use the word“property” to mean anything from a toothbrush to a transnational corporation — two very different things, with very different impacts upon society.

(Emphasis mine!)


Here’s where there is the most confusion about socialism. Those who really do benefit from capitalism will lie and tell you that under socialism you can’t have your own PERSONAL property. You can’t own your own home or your own boat, etc.

The truth is that your personal property—what you need to enjoy a secure and comfortable life—is a lot safer under socialism than under capitalism.

Until this economic crisis, tens of millions of people in the United States thought they owned their homes, their cars, their furniture and so on. Yes, they sent checks every month to the bank or the finance company, but if you asked them, it was their home, their car.

Ah, but it wasn’t. It belonged to the bank. The people weren’t really homeowners after all, were they? They had a contract. The small print said that after paying on a mortgage for something like 30 years, during which time they would fork over several times what the house was priced at, then they would be the owners.

Likewise, how many people really own their cars outright? Isn’t the real owner GMAC or some auto dealership? Won’t the repo man come and take it away if you don’t make your payments?

Personal property is very precarious under capitalism. For the vast majority, wages are too low to be able to buy outright all the things they need so they have to go into debt to get them.


What capitalism does protect big-time is capital—that is, the kind of private property that is used to exploit workers and create profits. That’s why the capitalist government was so quick to bail out the banks and corporations when they were facing bankruptcy. It has now spent trillions of the workers’ money to save the corporations and banks that exploit them.

You might be asking yourself what all this has to do with the blog, with environmentalism, with the ethic of Zero Waste, and to you I say: a lot. Eliminate the culture of exploitation, of the systemic dismantling of collectivism, and you not only free the worker, but you free the environment from thoughtless destruction in the name of monetary gain also. True environmentalism is political.


3 thoughts on “An Introduction to Private vs. Personal Property

  1. Thank you for this, I actually had no idea of these distinctions (all I remember from my economics class was that we had to do some income equations).


    • Hah! That’s still more practical than mine. We had to write a big essay/do a project about all the wonderful things the Fed does.


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